Phil Noir: Murder As a Second Language
It was late in the afternoon at Department 106, the time that jurors eyelids droop and the courtrooms elderly spectators check their bus schedules, when Phil Spectors murder trial paused for another sidebar. The two deputy D.A.s and defense attorney Roger Rosen leapt to Judge Larry Paul Fidlers bench, but Bruce Cutler didnt budge from his seat, marking another symbolic diminution of his role in the trial. Only three weeks ago Cutler had bombastically laid out the defenses theory of how Spector wound up with a dead woman sitting in his foyer. Among other things, the lawyer alleged that star prosecution witness Adriano DeSouzas difficulty with English cast doubt on the chauffeurs claim that he heard Spector utter the self-incriminating words, I think I killed somebody.
Sure enough, when DeSouza appeared on the witness stand last week, he spoke with a thick Brazilian accent, often forcing the court clerk as well as prosecutor Alan Jackson to ask him to repeat himself with DeSouza also requesting Jackson to rephrase his questions. Then there was the 911-call playback in which his mangled pronunciation of Phil Spector was repeated to DeSouza by a dispatcher as Seal Inspector.
DeSouza wasnt the only immigrant witness who was difficult to understand. There was Trader Vics bartender Ming Fong Chu, along with former Trader Vics general manager Chai Rojana both of whom had worked decades at the Beverly Hills restaurant. Even the plain-speaking Dan Tana waiter Manuel Cuadra and House of Blues security chief Euphrathes Lalondriz had moments that caused listeners to cup their ears for clarity. Their testimony was a vivid reminder to spectators about how much Los Angeles is a divided city of immigrant servers, chauffeurs and valets who speak little or no English, and who are employed to attend to the whims and pleasures of its middle- and upper-class whites.
But the trial is laying bare another civic demarcation, the one between those who, as Lalondriz said, are treated as golden and the rest of us. Like Messrs. DeSouza and Chu, this golden crowd also speaks its own native language but with voices, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, full of money. Again and again defense attorney Rosen tried to get House of Blues employees to deny they would break the law by serving inebriated patrons, Rosens implication being that Spector was not drunk when he left the Sunset Strip club. Yet again and again they told Rosen that the rules were bent for members of the clubs exclusive Foundation Room such as Spector, who, on the night Lana Clarkson died, left a $450 tip there for a cocktail and a bottle of water.
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Cutler, in his opening statement, had depicted the chauffeur DeSouza as an illegal immigrant who was taking a siesta at the time of the alleged shooting, but it was the silkier defense lawyer Bradley Brunon, a silver-haired man in his 60s, who grilled the driver. He was a smart choice. Brunons calm baritone helped him interrogate DeSouza with seemingly detached, off-handed objectivity. The blustery Cutler couldnt possibly have finessed such a delicate assignment nor could, for that matter, co-counsel Rosen, a vinegary man whose smile muscles creak whenever he greets a new prosecution witness.
Still, even Brunon could not conceal his disdain of DeSouzas foreignness constantly asking the chauffeur how to pronounce his name and, at one point, muttering a little too loudly that he thought DeSouzas pronunciation of the word sheet meant something else as in, the sheet hitting the fan. How well his performance is playing with the overwhelmingly nonwhite jury is difficult to tell. Brunon risks looking like the kind of French-cuffed aristocrat who wouldnt let most members of the jury even work at his country club, let alone join it. His constant queries about DeSouzas years of schooling in the English language, as well as his gratuitous dig at the chauffeur for illegally working while holding a student visa could easily backfire.
So far Cutler has conducted only one cross-examination, and it was an instant disaster. He had barely said hello to Dianne Ogden, a fragile-looking blonde with a girlish voice, when he began pounding the podium as he dismissed Ogdens claim that Spector had tried to rape her. Then he pointed both index fingers at Ogden, as though hurling double thunderbolts toward the witness stand. The lightning, however, struck Cutler instead as Judge Fidler immediately cut off the New Yorker, harshly warning him that his brand of histrionics would not be tolerated.
Word has allegedly emerged from the defense team that Cutlers showboating was cause for concern even before the trial began. According to one source, the defense paid a jury consultant $35,000 to have two potential opening statements read to a mock jury in order to learn which would be more effective and indeed found that one statement received far more favorable reviews than the other. Cutler, however, told the other team members he was not interested in the results of this audience test and would do the opening statement his way.
Cutler ended up fumbling on the trials first day, claiming loud and long that deputy D.A. Jacksons opening statement, which unexpectedly omitted Spectors inflammatory crime-night quotes, rendered Cutlers own prepared remarks legally unusable. It may have been that Cutler, when faced with having to deliver the defenses opening statement very late in the afternoon, was simply trying to run out the clock to face a refreshed jury the following morning, but Fidler ordered him to begin his statement nonetheless.
Jean Rosenbluth, a USC law professor and former federal prosecutor , whose career path has included stints in rock journalism (she once met Spector at one of his bowling parties), believes that Cutlers insistence to Fidler that his opening statement was scuttled by what Jackson didnt say was indeed a stalling tactic.
I dont blame him, Rosenbluth told the L.A. Weekly. He couldnt have been shocked by the judge not allowing him to use the quotes once the prosecution didnt. Thats Opening Statement 101.
After Fidler ordered him to begin his statement, Cutler left the courtroom for a brief sidebar with himself in the mens room, only to return with a seemingly extemporaneous peroration, whose oft-repeated phrase, They had murder on their minds, quickly became the butt of jokes among reporters.
All of this leaves court watchers wondering if Cutler is crazy as a fox or just crazy as a lunatic and how much longer hell be on Team Spector. Rosenbluth says Cutlers exit during the trial would be unlikely, though, since it would signal trouble to the jury. However, Rosenbluth noted, Cutler could leave on a medical pretext, the grounds of which have already been laid relating to Cutlers reported problems with his diabetes medication.
There was one $35,000 moment last week, and it came when the defense inadvertently allowed the immigrants to turn the tables. At one point Bradley Brunon asked Adriano DeSouza to describe Spectors voice, whereupon the driver produced a high nasal impersonation of the music producer.
Adri-ano! Adri-ano! Go to the Grill! DeSouza whined.
Except for Spector, the courtroom exploded in laughter sometimes even voices full of money sound hilarious.
More Phil Noir:
Marlowe vs. CSI? The Tycoon of Teens Gun Problem Muzzle Tov Friday, May 11, 2007
Accidental Suicide, May 3, 2007
A Spectator at the Spector Trial, April 27, 2007
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